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Schoolnet Thailand: An Information infrastructure for the future of Thailand

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SchoolNet Thailand:
An Information infrastructure for the future of Thailand

Paisal Kiattananan and Thaweesak Koanantakool
National Electronics and Conputer Technology Center,
National Science and Technology Development Agency,
Minustry of Science, Technology and Environment, Thailand.

The strength of a nation depends on the quality of its citizens. In order to remain economically competitive in the age of an increasingly globalized digital economy, Thailand needs a well-educated workforce adept at the use of   Information Technology. Unfortunately, Thailand’s existing educational system, like its economy, is badly in need of reform. It is therefore essential that something be done to inject a new hope into the system and save it from decay.

The Internet phenomenon is undoubtedly a major force that will change the world in a very significant way. We (NECTEC) regard it as an opportunity to plant a seed of change in our educational system. We believe that the Internet will reinvent the concept of learning. It will also redefine the teacher’s role and introduce to us the idea of classrooms without walls and student-centered learning environment.

History of SchoolNet in Thailand

We launched SchoolNet Thailand as a pilot project in late 1995, the year the government proclaimed to be Thailand IT (Information Technology) Year. The aim of SchoolNet is to provide Internet access to secondary schools throughout Thailand. By using technology to improve our educational system, this project supports the human-resource-development emphasis of the 8th National Economic and Social Development Plan as well as the National IT 2000 Plan.

Initially, 50 public secondary schools were selected to participate. Some computer hardware and software were donated to the schools by the private sector. We provided free Internet dial-up connection and training. However, there was a weakness in this early system as the network was based solely in Bangkok; schools outside the capital city had to shoulder the high cost of long-distance telephone calls in order to get connected. Even at the peak of Thailand’s economic growth, government funding to support SchoolNet was unavailable.

Fortunately, a parallel development occurred in late 1996 – the Kanchanapisek (Golden Jubilee) year. NECTEC was assigned to coordinate and carry out a grand project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of His Majesty the King’s accession to the throne. It was agreed that a digital library containing information about His Majesty’s life and work would best preserve his legacy for later generations.

A nationwide “Intranet” was thus created that enabled free local access to this digital library. Anybody with a PC and a modem could dial a local number from any location in Thailand to access this electronic information free of charge. The web site could also be accessed by anyone on the Internet. The success of this Kanchanapisek network  lay not only in providing nationwide access to the Thai people but also in the promotion and creation of Thai-language content on the Internet.

At the end of 1997, we had successfully completed three crucial components for Thailand’s mass-education programs on the Internet, namely: school awareness, Thai-language content and a nationwide access network. The three components were then integrated in 1998 to form the present national SchoolNet network.

SchoolNet@1509: Striving for Universal Access for Our Children

The marriage between the Kanchanapisek network and the original SchoolNet gave birth to a new national program for SchoolNet in February 1998. This new network is an initiative of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, and is named SchoolNet@1509.

SchoolNet@1509 is designed to provide free Internet dial-up access to 1,500 schools nationwide. The network can be accessed by dialing the number 1509 from any location in the country. The cost to access SchoolNet@1509 is just the cost of a local telephone call (at 3 baht a call everywhere in the country). This reduces the information gap between those living in the urban and the rural areas. We are proud that SchoolNet@1509 is the first serious attempt to provide universal access to the Thai people according to the Article 78 of the new Constitution.

The implementation of SchoolNet@1509 has been achieved through the cooperation of four government agencies: NECTEC, the Telephone Organization of Thailand (TOT), the Communication Authority of Thailand (CAT) and the Ministry of Education (MOE). Each has an important role and contribution to SchoolNet@1509. TOT sponsors domestic Internet bandwidth while CAT donates international Internet bandwidth. NECTEC designs, maintains and operates the network and central computer systems. The MOE selects schools; it also coordinates, promotes and supports the use of Internet in these schools.

The National IT Committee (NITC) also appointed in 1998 a sub-committee on IT for Education to look after SchoolNet policies and related issues.

Due to the participation of several government agencies, SchoolNet policy concerning school eligibility for accounts in SchoolNet was changed. The new policy in SchoolNet@1509 allows both public and private schools at primary or secondary levels to participate. This is in contrast with the previous policy that allowed only public schools at the secondary level to be members of SchoolNet. At the time of this writing (April 1999), there are altogether 923 schools and 1,757 registered users of SchoolNet@1509.

Cooperation with Ministry of Education in Resource Center Project

Despite the fact that SchoolNet@1509 has laid a good foundation for Internet infrastructure in Thailand, the battle to bring schools online is far from over. One of the major obstacles that we face is the lack of adequate computer and communication equipment in schools. In this respect, the Resource Center project of the MOE fits nicely into the picture. It complements SchoolNet@1509 by aiming at providing computer and communication systems for 420 schools nationwide.

In addition, the project will select 76 most promising schools (one school per province) out of the 420 to become ‘school nodes’ of SchoolNet@1509. These school nodes will be linked to SchoolNet@1509 via high-speed, permanent connections (leased circuits in contrast with the dial-up modem access that most schools normally get). However, with this privilege comes greater responsibilities: these selected schools will have to become local training centers and provide support to other schools in their respective provinces.

Unlike SchoolNet@1509, the MOE’s Resource Center project has not yet been implemented. Government funding of this project still has to be secured and a few details need to be worked out between the MOE and NECTEC to ensure smooth cooperation. Barring any unexpected circumstances, the infrastructure for both inside schools (through the Resource Center) and outside schools (through SchoolNet@1509) will be greatly enhanced by these projects. However, the Resource Center project only deals with the “hardware” side of the problem. When the infrastructure is ready for schools to connect to the Internet, two questions will immediately be asked: “Why do we need Internet in schools?” and “How do we use this computer to connect to the Internet?”. This raises two important issues concerning Internet content and human-resource development.

Contents Creation and Other Activities in SchoolNet Thailand

The Internet is like a double-edged sword. While its potential to elevate the educational standard is huge, it is also a good medium for transferring dangerous or inappropriate materials to children. Students must be guided in such a way that they spend time wisely on the Net, enriching their knowledge instead of idling away the time by playing games or engaging in meaningless online chat with their peers.

After spending the first few years developing the network infrastructure, we have gradually come to realize the importance of content – especially Thai-language content on the Internet. The first serious attempt to tackle this problem was undertaken in the Kanchanapisek project where we worked with eleven organizations which had served the country through many successful projects initiated by His Majesty the King. Thousands of Thai-language web pages were created that document the vast amount of information concerning the royally initiated projects: such as rural development, agriculture, irrigation and a junior encyclopaedia.

In a similar manner, SchoolNet@1509 needs good local content to attract teachers and students online. If  left alone in the Cyberspace dominated by English content, the language barrier will discourage most teachers and students from using the Internet. Therefore, it is essential that we have Thai-language content with good educational value that is designed to help the children do better in school.

The SchoolNet Content Development project was therefore started in September 1998. We commissioned Kasetsart University to carry out the project in conjunction with the Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology (IPST) and some selected schools. The objective is to create educational web sites in the Thai language for secondary-school students featuring 7 major academic subjects, namely: Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Engineering and Environment. These web sites are scheduled to be launched by December 5, 1999 to celebrate the 72nd birthday of His Majesty the King. Moreover, we hope that this effort will demonstrate and induce other schools to create their own educational web sites and thus contribute to the overall content for school children in Thailand.

Apart from content creation, we feel that it is also important to have activities organized such that teachers and students learn how to get the most from the vast educational potential of the Internet. Held once a year since 1996, Seagate Technology (Thailand) has joined us in organizing the Internet Training Camp for secondary school children. Students who sign up are trained in web development; they then compete against each other by building their own web pages centering on each year’s theme (for example, environment protection, the solar system, etc.).

GLOBE Program

The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program managed by NOAA is another activity that offers a good opportunity for teachers and students in SchoolNet@1509 to collaborate with their counterparts around the world. Through the program, schools can encourage students to study and understand the global environment. GLOBE students make environmental observations at or near their schools and report their data through the Internet.

Through our effort as the secretariat office of the National Information Technology Committee (NITC), Thailand is now one of the more than 80 countries that participate in the GLOBE program. A special committee has now been set up by the NITC to oversee Thailand’s participation and the IPST was appointed as the country coordinator.

Internet Training for Schools in the Project

In 1996, during the early phase of SchoolNet, we provided introductory training courses for the Internet for participating schools at our own facilities in Bangkok. However, as the project advanced, the number of member schools increased rapidly all over the country. It soon became obvious to us that the early model of centralized training was no longer practical.

When SchoolNet@1509 made its debut in February 1998, we knew that we needed some kind of distributed training model. Rajabhat Institutes soon emerged as our ideal partner.

At present, eight of their 36 campuses nationwide were able to offer Internet training courses., These 8 campuses were in different provinces and could serve as regional training centers for schools in those areas. Through the regional training centers, schools save tremendously on travel expenses to join training. We were also able to train more schools with the help of these Rajabhat Institutes. Last October, 274 schools and 419 users were trained this way.

We firmly believe that this training model is the right way to go. We plan to expand it to every province in the country so that schools no longer have to travel outside their provinces to get training. However, since Rajabhat has only 36 campuses, we therefore need to look for other partners. As mentioned earlier in this article, 76 schools, one from each province, will be selected by the Resource Center project to be connected to SchoolNet@1509 as Internet nodes. These 76 schools will be selected in such a way that they have the necessary resources and the required capability to lead others in Internet development. We will work with these selected schools and train them to be trainers for other schools in their provinces. This strategy of training the trainers will result in SchoolNet@1509 having 76 local training centers nationwide. If successful, it will accelerate the growth of SchoolNet@1509 significantly.

Linux School Internet Server (Linux-SIS)

It is often said that the computer is too complicated to use. This is particularly true for most teachers. Occasional training does help teachers become more familiar with the use of the computer and the Internet but the best way is to make things simpler for them.

We developed the Linux School Internet Server (Linux-SIS) to simplify the task of installing and managing an Internet servers in schools. As the Linux operating system is available free of charge, Linux-SIS serves as a low cost alternative to other UNIX or Windows NT systems.

Linux-SIS is a software package based on Slackware Linux and other add-on software to ease installation and system management. The programs that we developed and bundled with Linux-SIS simplify the installation process by presetting initial parameters for users.

To customize the system, users just answer some simple questions and Linux-SIS will set it up accordingly. The tasks of the system administrator are also simplified by web-based tools that manage the server, thus reducing the need for any technical background.

Schools that need Internet servers are finding Linux-SIS a great help to them. Linux-SIS can be used as an Internet gateway which lets other PCs in the school’s local area network share an Internet connection. It can also be used as an Intranet server for schools. We have been developing Linux-SIS since August 1996. It is now in its third version and is distributed with a book written by the SchoolNet team at NECTEC.

Community Support: SchoolNet Volunteer Program

Normally after the Internet training courses, quite a number of teachers often encounter technical problems when they go back to their schools and really start getting online. These problems for new users are more difficult when the only place that they can get help is NECTEC. A phone call to NECTEC’s helpdesk can cost 18 baht per minute for some areas in the country. This is certainly not affordable for most schools.

One possible solution is to develop local community involvement. Since all of us should take responsibility for the education of our children, why not sacrifice some of our time to help our schools get online? We believe that this spirit is what drives NetDay activities in the United States and the rest of the world. So we proposed a volunteer program for SchoolNet@1509. When the SchoolNet Vounteer Program was made public in early 1999, many people signed up and we selected 60 of the most qualified people from 23 provinces.

With a partial funding support from the Kenan Institute Asia, a volunteer conference is taking place in June 1999. In the event, the volunteers are to be briefed about the project, NECTEC's expectation of their support and the working code of practice. Each volunteer will be responsible for a few schools in his/her area. The volunteers are expected to provide first-level support to the schools. This may include answering technical questions, giving advice or even visiting schools to provide on-site support in some cases. We hope that these volunteers will not only make the lives easier for most teachers but will also help convey accurate information about SchoolNet@1509 so that schools better understand our project.

Concluding Remarks

We learned that any improvement in the quality of our education must be achieved through the balance of three factors, or 3Ts, namely: Technology, Teaching materials (content) and Teachers (their qualifications).  As described in this article, we have put our development efforts into all of them. However, being an organization focused on technology, our achievements in the Technology factor are far exceeding those in the other two factors. Additional efforts are needed to convince related government agencies to act and improve Thai-language content as well as teachers’ training.

The telecommunication infrastructure is like the transportation infrastructure. Building a good road to a rural community without preparing it for the onslaught of urban culture and consumerism will only destroy the livelihood of its people. It is thus important that we strengthen the rural communities before exposing them to the economic risks of the new road. By the same argument, Internet can be dangerous for an unprepared community. This is why we do regulate SchoolNet@1509 availability to only “known communities”. It will never be “unlimited” usage to an “unlimited” number of schools.

It might be too early to judge whether SchoolNet@1509 will succeed in the long run. However, it is undeniable that this project has already made a significant impact on many schools in Thailand.

NECTEC should be viewed as just an incubator of the early efforts to introduce the Internet in Thai schools. It is clear that no single organization in the country can accomplish this task alone. Thailand urgently needs a joint effort by different government ministries if it really wants to see that every student has a chance to get online.


The authors wish to thank every member of SchoolNet Thailand team who provided information and materials for use in this report.

For further information about Schoolnet, please refer to the URL http://www.school.net.th.


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